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HeartMind e-News: Teach, Learn, Lead

A monthly publication dedicated to trauma-informed, compassionate school practices that help educators, students, and families move toward a sense of wholeness and well-being


The Compassionate School Leadership Academy

Meghan Wenzel, CEI Senior Writer, and Christine Mason, CEI Executive Director

From police brutality against Blacks to anti-Asian sentiment during COVID to centuries old anti-semitism, racism and discrimination are unfortunately widespread and embedded features of modern American society. Deeply ingrained within American society are structural and cultural racism, interpersonal discrimination, and the inequities in public systems, all of which feed ongoing attitudes and actions that lead to intergenerational trauma and chronic stress for those experiencing racist discrimination, injustice, and inequities.

As Ibrahm Kendi says, despite long-held racist attitudes, “Racist power is not godly. Racist policies are not indestructible. Racial inequities are not inevitable. Racist ideas are not natural to the human mind” (2019, p. 238). Racist ideas are tied to a belief of White power and White supremacy, and an accompanying fear that if other races, ethnicities, and ideas gain power, Whites will lose their dominance. Today, we are seeing many Whites in positions of privilege and power working against movements to bring about greater equity and justice (Lempinen, 2022).

How structural and everyday racism undermine children’s physical and mental development

While racism touches everyone in some way, racism can uniquely impact young children – impacting not only their feelings, but also their developing brains and bodies. Having to constantly cope with systemic racism and everyday discrimination can strongly activate the body’s stress response. When children’s stress response systems are highly activated over long periods, the increased cortisol results in inflammatory reactions in their brains and bodies, potentially resulting in lifelong effects on learning, behavior, and both physical and mental health (Forde et al., 2019; Trent et al., 2019).

The chronic stress that a large number of young children who are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) experience is fueled by the same drivers of racism that adults experience: racist ideas, policies, unhealthy environments, segregated neighborhoods, interpersonal discrimination, and loss of self-esteem. 

The ongoing experience of racism affects not only children’s physical and emotional health and well-being, but also creates financial burdens, poverty, lost opportunities, and a widespread web of inequities that are shared by children and families (Shonkoff et al., 2021). For example, racist policies have led to greater incarceration of men of color and policies that can trigger not only bias, but vulnerability and threat. Children are impacted by reduced access to early education and quality schools, lack of healthy food and medical care, fears of losing loved ones, greater rates of suspension and expulsion from school, and anti-immigration policies creating layers of bias and hardships (Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, 2019; Acevedo et al., 2020; Walker et al., 2010; Williams & Collins, 2001).

The chronic stress that children of color face as a result of racism has life-long consequences. In addition to its impact on a physiological level, experiencing racism has been linked to mental health problems, faster aging (Carter et al., 2019), more chronic health problems, and shorter lifespans than Whites on average across all income levels (Williams & Wyatt, 2015).

The stresses of everyday discrimination also harm parents and caregivers, impacting their mental health, behavior, and ability to provide warm and consistent care (Pachter & Coll, 2009). Thus a vicious cycle emerges, with parents, caregivers, and children all dealing with additional stress, anxiety, and instability due to regular racism and discrimination.

Racism in the Classroom

Racism surfaces in the classroom through conscious and unconscious bias. Prospective teachers are nearly twice as likely to interpret the facial expressions of Black children as being angry, even when they are not, while giving White children the benefit of the doubt, one study found (Halberstadt et al., 2022). These unconscious biases likely contribute to disciplinary discrepancies observed in schools, another form of systemic racism. Additionally, they can lead to false and limiting beliefs about oneself (Dweck, 2000).

“The labels that children receive in childhood stick with them and can be internalized,” said Nevin J. Heard, an assistant professor of clinical counseling at Roosevelt University in Illinois (Rogers, 2020). “When a child is labeled ‘aggressive’ or ‘a problem’ that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. These labels can contribute to delays in learning and cognitive diagnoses in addition to over-diagnosis, which can lead to long-lasting adverse mental health outcomes.”

Experiences with Racism

The National Survey of Children’s Health, a nationally representative survey directed by groups within the US Department of Health and Human Services, asked parents how often their children faced racist experiences between 2016 and 2020 (Moges-Gerbi, 2022). Reported racial incidents experienced by non-White children increased from roughly 6.7% in 2016 to 9.3% by 2020 (Moges-Gerbi, 2022).

Created based on data from Moges-Gerbi (2022).

“Our study underlines the need for clinicians to expand their anti-racism resources and also highlights the role culturally competent health care can play in lessening the effects of adverse childhood experiences with racism,” said Hendrix-Dicken. “Understanding cultural context, historical trauma and providing mental health services from a culturally informed perspective is the best thing the medical community can do,” added Hartwell who is also a Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Oklahoma State University (Moges-Gerbi, 2022).

  • Black Americans are five times more likely to serve time than White Americans (Nellis, 2021). When a parent is taken to prison, children may have to move between relatives’ homes and/or foster care. Foster care itself can be highly traumatizing, with up to 80 percent of children dealing with significant mental health issues, compared to roughly 18-22 percent of the general population (NCSL, 2019).

  • Forced relocation and loss of ancestral lands has led to intergenerational trauma and ongoing adverse childhood experiences for Native American children. This contributes in substantial ways to higher rates of depression, suicide, and anxiety (Child Welfare Information Gateway, n.d.).

  • As immigrant children adjust to being in a new country, they may experience stress, confusion, and even shame when their customs are markedly different to the culture, values, and expectations of their peers. If a parent is deported, children can experience extreme sadness and anxiety, difficulties with sleeping and eating, depression, and declining school performance (Rogers, 2020).

  • Anti-Asian violence and discrimination have increased since the COVID-19 pandemic. The resulting fear, confusion, anxiety, stress, shame, and depression can negatively impact children’s mental and physical health. 

  • Muslim students often face verbal assaults and bullying (CAIR Texas, 2020). The marginalization and othering of Muslim Americans have manifested in adverse psychological symptoms including fear, stress, worry, isolation, numbness, desensitization, insecurity, and feelings of powerlessness (Elkassem et al., 2018). 

What can we do?

Protective factors such as positive relationships, parental engagement, social support, school connectedness, and safe and caring communities among others can buffer students from the harmful effects of racism and discrimination. 

But there’s more we can do. 

  • First of all, educators need to understand and address their own conscious and unconscious biases.
  • Moreover, we need to educate and inform ourselves to better understand the impact of our actions, the impact of inequities, and how we can shift our attitudes and behaviors.

At the societal level, we can:

  • Provide needed services for all young children and families
  • Create new strategies to address “upstream” inequities that systematically threaten the health and well-being of young children of color and the adults who care for them (Trent et al., 2019)
  • Reduce biases and discrimination in ourselves and in economic and social policies
  • Promote fair hiring and lending practices
  • Promote fair housing and home ownership programs
  • Provide thoughtful and ongoing anti bias training
  • Develop more equitable community policing initiatives (Weir, 2016)

At the community and school level, much can be accomplished by setting up a compassionate culture (Mason et al., 2021) and

  • Increasing understanding of trauma and how to foster resiliency 
  • Strengthening student mental health and well-being through evidence-based practices to alleviate trauma and promote self-care and resiliency
  • Creating a sense of belonging and community 
  • Talking to students about discrimination
  • Encouraging teachers, staff, and parents to prioritize their own mental health and self-care


Racism and discrimination are centuries old and deeply rooted in our society. It won’t be quick nor easy to confront and dismantle them, but we have to address them head on and all commit to this important work. Racism impacts innocent children, harming their mental, physical, and emotional well-being. Educators who understand the connection between racism and children's health and development are in a better position to bring healing and well-being into the lives of children who need our emotional support and protection.


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